Christopher M. Rance
Sixty-two years old, tall, wiry with broad shoulders, Abu Zimar could easily be mistaken for one of the many beech trees that sprawl across the Balkan Mountains. The trees there often grow into the shapes of men, as unbending and stalwart as its human inhabitants. He is our family’s fighter. The father of my mother, Abu is the man who has the honor and responsibility of killing the lamb for us when we celebrate Eid-al-Fitr. My grandfather always makes Kokoreç, his specialty, from the intestines of the lamb wrapped around seasoned offal. He has taken more lives than those of just lamb over the years, but he will not speak of it, except on those rare occasions when the Rakia is flowing, loosening his tongue and he begins to mutter “There was a time….,” launching into a story from his time fighting the Jihad, but never chronologically or with reason. Like all soldiers talking of war, there is no end or beginning in the stories, just the vocalization of the memories that can never leave him.
The morning he woke up early, and after prayers and washing, slaughtered our family’s lamb for Eid-al-Fitr. I watched him at work. He deftly moved the blade across the lamb’s throat and with one broad stroke, the lamb’s life spilled out onto the ground. That night, after we ate and spent time with our family, he beckoned me to follow him. I nearly had to run after him; a bottle in one hand and pipe in the other, he instinctively descended into a long passageway, lost in thought. The old defense structures, bunkers, and half-destroyed buildings spread out like a thick forest of concrete in all directions. The walls were half a meter or more in width, pockmarked with bullet and shrapnel scars. Struggling to keep pace, I watched as he dipped through the low door of a bunker and into a dimly lit room. Propaganda posters from the American invasion were tacked to the walls, half falling off, but not removed like a dilapidated shrine to a time when things were better, even though they were at their worst. His old rifle sat resting in a corner, still cleaned and oiled, as it had been since as long as I had known. Of course, it was an antique in today’s world, as gas operated weapons were virtually obsolete, in favor of crew portable electromagnetic weapons. The last decade saw innovative developments in battery technology, conductive ceramics, and upgraded rails. They were still cumbersome, but western armies relied more on robotics to do their heavy fighting—though mobile combat units would use the electromagnetic weapons for precise hard kinetic kills at a distance, but Abu cared for his old rifle like it was God’s blessing itself. The Americans had come with weapons much more powerful, “but a bullet will kill too,” he would always say.
The room was bare, with only two chairs and a battered wooden table that was butted up against the far wall with all manner of war paraphernalia and tools placed meticulously atop it. Assorted chemicals, a loading press, a small belt lathe lined the opposite side of the room; it was all analog, no technology, no risk of unwanted attention from the outside world. Abu fought either for or against, the Americans or the Russians his entire life, switching sides as the situation required. He had been a fighter for Tahrir al-Shams in the Syrian war, and after getting injured in a raid to free captured Brothers in Jordan, he fled to a small village in Bosnia, Gornja Maoca. My grandfather stayed and made this his home. He married and had just one child, my mother. For the first few years, it was peaceful, and he lived quietly, but little did he know that was merely the calm before the storm.
When the New Caliphate arose from the ashes of Syria and Iraq, it drew men from Bosnia and from the entire Islamic world. Albanian nationalism reached its boiling point, and after the rioting and massacres in the streets, conflict with Macedonia came hard. Ethnic Albanians formed nearly a quarter of the Macedonia population and had privileged political representation as a result of the NATO-drafted Ohrid Agreement. This created tension in the political process for Macedonia and civil war soon ripped her apart. Russia and Turkey began to gobble up factional allies, vying for the best strategic positions and arms trade agreements. Russia held sway over the Orthodox areas, while Turkey held power over the Muslim-majority domains of Albania and Bosnia. China made an attempt at smoothing over the Russian-Turkish relationship, and in the process, entered Europe’s doorstep with several battalions of “peacekeepers” straight thru the Balkans, and at this point, America felt inclined to get involved. The thought of the Chinese sitting right outside of the Euro Zone was enough to devalue the Euro and threaten an international economic collapse.
And then the bomb happened. It was men my grandfather knew well, Brothers from Bocinja Donja that carried out the dirty bomb attack in Rome. The Sharia enclaves in Bosnia, which served as the safe havens for the jihadist attackers, became targets of international attention. Abu Zimar now was once again called to make Jihad and picked up his rifle to go to war.
That night, as my grandfather sat down with his back against the wall, he took a drink straight from the bottle and packed his long pipe with tobacco. He gazed off, in another world; in another time. Taking a long drag of the sweet blue smoke, he whispered, “There was a time…”
His Vignettes from War
“…Electromagnetic pulses rippled through our cities. The E-bombs severed all of our technology. All AVA’s [augmented visual assistants], mobile phones, robotics, and computers stopped functioning. Rail transport systems were stopped dead in their tracks. Banks, airports, and fuel distribution systems collapsed. The fabric of our modern society ripped apart, death without ever inflicting violence. Banja Luka, Tuzia, Bijeljina, Zenica, and Sarajevo all went black; the only light was from above the clouds, as American warplanes dropped their bombs and returned to Aviano Air Base in Italy.”
“…. The Americans used the remnants of a makeshift airfield in the delta of the Neretva River, just south of the port of Ploče as their ground operations center for the invasion. Mobile landing platform vessels funneled into the Adriatic, acting as amphibious motherships for the joint high-speed vessels bringing forth their multi-purpose infantry vehicle carriers, soldiers and drone command centers to Croatia’s shores.”
“…The autonomous robots came in, they called them A-Bots. Aerial robotic systems came in swarms, endless swarms. The heaviest fighting I had ever seen ensued. Our bullets did nothing against the robot’s metamaterial armor.”
“…Fighting in Mostar…Trebinje…and Sarajevo took many lives. The Mobile Infantry units secured and held more ground within Bosnia, pulling off precision raids against all of our leadership. Their speed and lethality were unmatched.”
“…Our movement had to be precise, choreographed. The Americans began using tracking algorithms, collected from aerial and satellite sensor footage. If you deviated from any habitual patterns, your movement would be marked as unusual and suspect, making you targetable. We had to adapt to patterns like the daily rhythm of children going to school or the ebb and flow of market days just to mask our movements.”
“…When I made my first trek across the Maglić Mountains and into Montenegro for equipment, it was for carbon nanotube microprocessor chips to get our additive printing, micro-computers, and our weapon sighting systems back online. We had to always have shielded backup because the American soldiers would throw EMP grenades right before they attacked a position. If you couldn’t swap chips in time, you died without ever firing your weapon. Everything became digital, Cryptocurrency trickled in from our overseas brothers in support the Jihad. It was untraceable and used to secretly fund our campaign and to line the pockets of politicians in Croatia to put pressure on the Americans to leave. It also paid for the cyber warfare specialists from Riyadh.”
“…When we netted a drone just outside of Mostar, we had Ali, a King Saud University College of Science alum, scan the onboard computer system from the drone. He went over every inch of the neural interfaces for vulnerabilities to exploit, it took him weeks, but he finally found one…but then they upgraded the interface diodes, and we lost it…American networks linked their robots, the soldiers’ optical inserts, and other Nano computer-enabled systems on the battlefield through extremely high bandwidth telepresence. Sever the head, you cut the feed.”
“…We went on the offense. The killing was easy, just stab the throat and work the hole. Open the hole wide enough and he will die. Soldiers stationed in Croatia stopped going out after dark. Croatians started to become uneasy with the Americans on their land. After a while, we started to hit them with IEDs and homemade EMP grenades.”
“…Our greatest weapon was cyber-attacks; frequent disruptions of the American systems. Although we tried hard, we couldn’t control the drones, but we could change the targeting permissions code within the system.”
“…Russia entered the war in fear of their Balkan Stream becoming in jeopardy in Macedonia. The gas pipeline was already a thorn in the side of the Americans after their failed Color Revolution earlier in the century, and Russia feared their pipeline was going to be targeted by them.”
His voice trailed off, and he stared into the night just barely visible beyond the bunker’s thin slit windows. He continued to smoke his pipe though it had gone out long ago. Suddenly, almost seeming to remember I was there, he threw his deep weathered eyes at me, penetrating into mine. The flame burned in his eyes and in an instant it was extinguished, leaving only the intense sadness they always held. He looked to the floor and said with defeat, “Man is like God, he never changes.”